The Queen’s death could open a new chapter in the Caribbean and force crucial conversations about colonialism


Since the death of Queen Elizabeth II last week, Kris Manjapra has been thinking a lot about a special moment in her childhood.

He told CNN that in 1990, when he was 12 years old and living with his family in Calgary, Canada, the Queen visited the city. The students of his school were ordered to gather by the side of the road so they could watch his cavalcade and receive the wave.

“I was an immigrant kid in a very white city with my parents. We were struggling as new immigrants,” said Manjapra, a professor of history at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where his research focuses on, among other things, the critical study of race. and colonialism. “And I remember thinking how weird it was that we (students) were being used as props in some kind of competition.”

Manjapra, who is of mixed African and Indian descent, was born in the Bahamas in 1978, a year after the Queen’s Silver Jubilee tour of the country. And like many others here in the US with roots in Britain’s former Caribbean colonies, he has had a complicated reaction to the death of the Queen, someone indelibly embedded in the history of empire. For them, the past week has been marked less by frustration than by grief that there is little room in the narrative to engage with the legacy of British colonialism in the region.

“It’s striking to me how much energy goes into grieving the loss of a person,” Manjapra said. “Certainly, the loss of a person should be mourned, especially by their family. But why is it so inaccessible to feel remorse and sorrow for all the harm done on that person’s behalf?”

Marcia Bartlett, who was born in Jamaica in 1956 and grew up under British colonial rule, echoed some of Manjapra’s sentiments. He lived on the island for nearly 30 years before moving to New York, one of the Caribbean’s most immigrant states, and said he had questioned the relationship between Britain and Jamaica since he was a curious high school student.

“Since then, I have grown resentment towards those people who govern my island,” Bartlett told CNN.

Many former British colonies are linked together in the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose, voluntary association of 56 countries. Most of the members are republics. But 14, including the Bahamas and Jamaica, recognize the British monarch as their official head of state. In November 2021, Barbados became the first kingdom since 1992 to abdicate.

Like many others with ties to the Caribbean, Bartlett was deeply moved by Barbados’ decision to ditch the monarchy, and hopes that the rest of the region’s former imperial possessions will continue to do so.

“I was cheering,” he said. “I think (transition to a republic) will come up in a referendum in Jamaica at some point. There are still people who think it’s good to be ruled by the British. But as far as I’m concerned, Jamaica has to sink or swim on its own.”

A longstanding enmity

To understand the Queen’s mixed heritage in the eyes of many Caribbean people and their descendants, let’s review some of the region’s history.

By the 18th century, the Caribbean was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s imperial economy; According to the SlaveVoyages database, north of 2 million slaves landed in the empire’s Caribbean colonies by the time the British slave trade was abolished in 1807.
However, “after slavery, freedmen were denied access to land and expected to work for low wages,” University of Toronto history professor Padraic Scanlan wrote for the Washington Post last year. “Emancipation policies were also a useful justification of imperialism.”

Social and political challenges have persisted even since the middle of the 20th century, since the pioneering period when many British colonies declared independence.

“The British left a mess behind when formal colonization began to end in the 1960s,” explains Manjapra. “In her first speech in Jamaica in 1966, however, Elizabeth spoke only of the ‘loyalty and kindness’ of the people of the Commonwealth. She never acknowledged the damage caused by the looting, massacres, deprivations and racism of British rule.”

Manjapra emphasized Britain’s carelessness in the Caribbean during the decade.

“There was a kind of distancing from the mess that colonialism created, leaving the Caribbean deeply in debt, without resources, with very weak institutions — things that it still faces there today,” he said.

Then there is the problem of the legacy of slavery: the Queen’s relative silence about it. After Britain abolished the practice of human slavery in its colonies in the 1830s, it took out a £20 million loan to compensate slave owners.

“Until 2015, the British state was paying this debt,” said Manjapra. “A deeply immoral practice was going on and it finally came to light a few years ago. But the Queen remained silent. The Queen’s silence on so many issues related to justice for people of color in Britain and the former colonies — I can.” don’t read it as duty or dignity or “apolitical” as That silence was a very political act, and essential for the mechanism of the British state.”

The royal family has acknowledged but remained unapologetic about Britain’s many imperial crimes and their lasting consequences.

“An apology would be nice, but … nothing,” Bartlett said.

The frayed relationship was on full display last March when Princes William and Kate toured the Caribbean and were met by anti-colonial protests.

“Denial won’t make anything go away”

The Queen’s death could open a new chapter in the Caribbean.

New York University law professor Melissa Murray, whose family is from Jamaica, recently noted on Twitter that the Queen’s death could spark crucial debate about Commonwealth ties in the region.

“I imagine his death will quicken debates about colonialism, reparations and the future of the Commonwealth.” Murray wrote. “Consideration of our past is likely to set us back for the difficult conversation that will inevitably come. And even for those who respect and revere the Queen, the remnants of colonialism overshadow everyday life in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. .”
Manjapra, author of the 2022 book “Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation,” shared Murray’s sentiments. In particular, he emphasized that opening the way forward lies in not obscuring the terrible legacy of Great Britain’s colonial violence.

“We don’t deal with painful histories by ignoring or denying them, or trying to find a solution immediately,” he said. “We deal with painful histories by acknowledging their presence with us in our lives and in our world, and then engaging in discussion, creating opportunities for meaningful conversations about what the future of healing might look like.”

Doing all this, of course, takes time and effort and investment.

“Honestly, it’s a conversation about reparations,” Manjapra said. “Reparations are on the table, and they must be on the table to deal with what happened and what continues to develop.”

To put it a little more plainly, he added, “colonial conditions are not in the past; they persist, and continue to reinforce the racial caste system.”